Re-Affirming the Value of the Sports Exception to Title IX’s General Non-Discrimination Rule
66 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2020 Last revised: 8 Apr 2020
Date Written: January 21, 2020
Title IX expresses society’s commitment to sex equality in educational settings. The structure of the statute’s regulatory scheme makes clear that the goal is sex equality, not sex neutrality. Notwithstanding the general preference for sex neutral measures, the sports exception to Title IX’s general nondiscrimination rule has long been one of the statute’s most popular features. The challenge in the beginning of the Title IX era was to get educational institutions to conceive of and equally to support females as athletes. We continue to fight for equal support, but as Title IX concludes its first semi-centennial, we no longer struggle as we did in the beginning with the basic concept of females as athletes, or of female sport as a high value social good.
The challenge as we move into Title IX’s second semi-centennial is to get institutions to address the remaining disparities in their treatment of female athletes and female sport at the same time as we enter a new era in which we are being asked to imagine that “female” includes individuals of both sexes so long as they identify as women and girls. This ask reflects the intellectual choice to conceive of sex as a social construct rather than as a fact of biology tied to reproduction, and also the strategic choice of trans rights advocates to work toward law reform that would disallow any distinctions on the basis of sex. The problem is that female sport is by design and for good reasons a reproductive sex classification. These reasons have nothing to do with transphobia and everything to do with the performance gap that emerges from the onset of male puberty. Whether one is trans or not, if one is in sport and cares about sex equality, this physical phenomenon is undeniably relevant. Changing how we define “female” so that it includes individuals of both sexes, and then disallowing any distinctions among them on the basis of sex, is by definition and in effect a rejection of Title IX’s equality goals. Those who push for these changes are committed to sex neutrality, not sex equality.
The goals of this paper are to provide the legal, factual, and normative background necessary to evaluate the merits of this challenge to the sports exception to Title IX’s general nondiscrimination rule, and then to present the case for re-affirming the exception in a form that is appropriate for this next period of its history. It proceeds in three parts: Part I describes the legal history of Title IX’s sports exception, its goals, and the current state of the legal doctrine. Part II explains its scientific basis and rationale. Part III sets out the best case for and against affirming the commitment to sex equality in education-based sport, and then presents our argument for resolving the collision of interests at issue. The paper concludes that the original Title IX commitment to sex equality continues to do important work and should not to be abandoned, including in the sports space where equality requires not only recognizing but also celebrating physical sex differences. Including trans people within this design is difficult by definition, but policymakers should accept the challenge.
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